What is Eco-therapy and what are its benefits?
Ecotherapy uses a range of practices in order to help us connect with nature and ultimately with our ‘inner’ nature. Personal distress can be alleviated by developing the mutual connection between inside and outside.
So eco-therapy could be walking, taking pictures, gardening, working with animals, building fires, surfing, swimming in rivers; anything which allows us to spend quality time outside. It can also means doing therapy outside, sometimes whilst engaging in those activities, so walking whilst having a coaching conversation, or gardening and coaching, or dog walking and coaching. You get the picture.
My mum was an eco-therapist, but she would have laughed at the title. For her, getting out in nature was a fundamental, non-negotiable of our daily life; walks in bluebell woods, blackberry picking, chestnut gathering, gardening, she did it all and we had no choice, but to go along with her. I am so grateful.
Ecotherapy is more than a walk in the woods or watching a beautiful sunset. It’s an emerging form of treatment that can help with healing depression. It aims at restoring the connection to the natural world that is usually limited to high-speed glimpses of windshield scenery.
In my darkest hours of bereavement and divorce, I walked. I walked and walked when I didn’t know what else to do with the pain or the fear of what would come next. I have leaned against huge oaks to feel their solid presence at my back when all else felt flimsy. I have lain on grass and sobbed, letting the earth absorb my tears. No matter how bad it got, the birds still flew, the sky still lightened and the ground was always present at my feet. When all else is falling apart, these constancies mattered.
A few years ago researchers at the University of Essex in 2007 found that, of a group of people suffering from depression, 90 percent felt a higher level of self-esteem after a walk through a country park, and almost three-quarters felt less depressed. Another survey by the same research team found that 94% of people with mental illnesses believed that contact with nature put them in a more positive mood.
What nature means to me
Some of my most treasured moments have been outside, sitting in the sun chatting with friends, down by the river cutting dead wood away, climbing the high hill in snow which reached out waists, swimming in the icy current after a long day at work, lighting bonfires on short autumn afternoons. And walking. Walking with my sons, with friends, partners, dogs. Walking in silence, walking and talking, holding hands, stopping and staring.
My dad taught me how to take photos, to use the light and become aware of fore and back ground and still now I find that my camera helps me really look, really pay attention to the detail of angle and texture, allows me to drop into the moment and find a point of stillness over this flower, that sunset.
As I have grown older, nature has meant more to me. I steal lunchtime walks to see the sky and move my body when I am at work. I head into the garden after tea, to cut back or plant, to mow or seed, depending on the season or the weather. I walk the dogs often before dawn, so that I know that my body has felt the air, seen the stars and heard the owls hoot before a day of artificial light and screen.
Increasingly seasons have mattered to me, the energy of spring when my mind starts to buzz and I want to clear out and plant new seeds. I’m so much more sociable in the summer, so much more likely to be out late with groups of people. I often feel a little melancholic in autumn for all it’s rich cloaking. It is a time of harvest, freezing the apples and damsons, cutting wood for the fire before the frost.
By winter, my social life is with books, by firesides. My yoga is softer, nearer to the ground than the balances and inversions of summer. Everything changes. I eat differently, I sleep more, I gain weight which I now know not to worry about as it falls off again with the frenzied energy of spring.
I have learned to find wisdom in nature. The seeds remind me that I can plant ideas, but I must also fertilse the soil to give them the best chance of growing. The birds remind me that some people stay in my life and some will take wing and fly away.
Then there is the larger turning of my life. I am well and truly in autumn. My roots are deep and my canopies wide and yet here and there leaves are falling. Unless I live past 100, there is more of life behind me than ahead which makes time precious, helps me focus on what matters and cut out all the rest.
My children moan, as I did, when we drag them outside, insist they kick a ball, or run with friends or walk with us when they would much rather spend the time on screens. But I will not budge on this crucial relationship. They need to know the world which feeds them, which keeps them warm, which we all share, which will impact upon their lives directly and indirectly, whether they choose to see it or not.
My mum’s generation didn’t ‘forage’ they just picked fruit and gathered nuts. They didn’t ‘eat clean’ they just would never have considered eating something from a tin when they could eat food they had grown. I know which berries are safe to eat and which to leave alone. Yes she would have laughed at the idea of eco-therapy, because she would never have believed that people would become so lost to all that she held so dear; the turn of the tides, the waxing and waning of the moon, the first snowdrop of spring.
Why we need to be outside
But the world has changed. We spend more time sitting, inside on screens than ever before and we know it is bad for her. In my previous blog I gave evidence of the correlation between the rise in phone use and the rise of anxiety. Sitting still for too long can have ‘deleterious cardiovascular and metabolic effects’
When I was teaching a masters programme to teachers, one of them did his dissertation on Nature Deficit Disorder, a phrase coined by Louv which argued that due to a mixture of technology and parental anxiety, children are no longer connected to nature, which, he argues is devastating for their development:
He also argues that if we can’t name things or know what they are, we can’t value them or preserve them which is having disastrous effects for our climate and environment. Nature needs us and we need it.
We need to help our body produce vitamin D to strengthen our bones. We also know that daylight boost serotonin production which improves mood:
We showed that turnover of serotonin by the brain was lowest in winter (p=0·013). Moreover, the rate of production of serotonin by the brain was directly related to the prevailing duration of bright sunlight (r=0·294, p=0·010), and rose rapidly with increased luminosity. Our findings are further evidence for the notion that changes in release of serotonin by the brain underlie mood seasonality and seasonal affective disorder.
Self esteem and mood increase when we exercise outside (which can be anything from walking to hanging off a cliff!). My parents would have laughed at the term ‘green exercise’, but it exists!
A significant main effect for self-esteem and mood pre and post activity (p < 0.001) was reported after participating in a single session. The change in self-esteem was significantly greater in the green exercise group compared with the social activities club (p < 0.001). Dose responses showed that both self-esteem and mood levels improved over the six-week period and improvements were related to attendance in the green exercise group.
With a rise in obesity, anxiety and environmental destruction, it has never been more important to re-connect to nature, whether through walking mindfully, taking photographs, painting, dog walking or gardening. I was lucky that I had the parents I did. I would love everyone to have the same. If you feel like you’d like to develop your relationship with nature and aren’t sure where to start, get in touch and together we can work something out.
Now I’m off to walk the dog!